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Sunday 30 December 2012

An Early 20th Century Mad Scientist

Just before Christmas I got hold of a second-hand copy of Meet Mr Mulliner (1927) by P.G. Wodehouse. This consists of a series of “tall tales” narrated by the fictitious Mr Mulliner, which I bought in the hope that some of them might have a Fortean flavour (since I’m constantly running out of ideas for this blog). Unfortunately this isn’t really the case, although at one point Mr Mulliner does refer to “a subject on which I happen to hold strong views – to wit, the question of what is and what is not true to life”... and then goes on to say “I have suffered a good deal from this sceptical attitude of mind which is so prevalent nowadays.” These sentiments at least are something a Fortean can sympathize with!

The issue of “what is and what is not true to life” crops up in the context of a cinematic villain in the shape of an archetypal Mad Scientist. The discussion in question takes place at the start of the second story in the collection, entitled “A Slice of Life”, which was originally published in the August 1926 issue of the Strand magazine. That really was a long time ago. The only type of film that a cinema-goer could see in 1926 was a silent movie – the first “talkies” didn’t appear until the following year. And what might be termed “imaginative literature” was still in its infancy. The first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, appeared in April 1926, but the term “science fiction” hadn’t yet come into common usage – the genre was still referred to as “scientifiction”. So it’s interesting to see that the Mad Scientist was already a sufficiently well-defined cliché in 1926 that it could happily be referred to in a non-genre story (I’m talking about the out-and-out “evil” Mad Scientist archetype here, not the well-intentioned but misguided type like Victor Frankenstein).

Here is the opening dialogue from “A Slice of Life”, complete with its Evil Mad Scientist archetype, which prompts Mr Mulliner to rail against scepticism:

The conversation in the bar-parlour of the Anglers’ Rest had drifted round to the subject of the Arts: and somebody asked if that film-serial, The Vicissitudes of Vera, which they were showing down at the Bijou Dream, was worth seeing.

‘It’s very good,’ said Miss Postlethwaite, our courteous and efficient barmaid, who is a prominent first-nighter. ‘It’s about this mad professor who gets this girl into his toils and tries to turn her into a lobster.’

‘Tries to turn her into a lobster?’ echoed we, surprised.

‘Yes, sir. Into a lobster. It seems he collected thousands and thousands of lobsters and mashed them up and boiled down the juice from their glands and was just going to inject it into this Vera Dalrymple's spinal column when Jack Frobisher broke into the house and stopped him.’

‘Why did he do that?’

‘Because he didn't want the girl he loved to be turned into a lobster.’

‘What we mean,’ said we, ‘is why did the professor want to turn the girl into a lobster?’

‘He had a grudge against her.’

This seemed plausible, and we thought it over for a while. Then one of the company shook his head disapprovingly.

‘I don't like stories like that,’ he said. ‘They aren't true to life.’

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